Seven Years in Tibet

A profound story of spiritual transformation

Seven Years in Tibet

Even as I write this belatedly by more months than I care to think about, I am still simply amazed by the poor reception given to this masterful film, which was in my mind, the only contender to Titanic as Best Picture of 1997, and probably even more deserving. After seeing it, I rushed back to see it again as soon as possible, which is something I almost never do. Seven Years in Tibet is a masterpiece, which was destroyed by critics who couldn’t understand it, apparently expecting it to be something it was emphatically not: a story about the Dalai Lama.

Certainly the Dalai Lama figures extremely prominently in the latter portion of the film, but this film is a cinematic translation of Heinrich Harrer’s prosaic memoirs by the same name, and it is infinitely superior to its source book. If you didn’t catch that, let me say it again: This movie is not about the Dalai Lama. This is the true story of the arduous spiritual transformation of Heinrich Harrer, from Third Reich poster boy and all-around asshole, into a genuine and loving human being. One more time: This movie is about an Austrian, not a Tibetan! Understand that, and I think it will be impossible not to love this film.

Harrer, the Aryan poster boy and asshole in question, is played by Brad Pitt. His performance is superb, despite an exaggerated accent at the beginning. Harrer is a young mountain climber, attempting to conquer Nanga Parbat, an unclimbed mountain in the Himalayas, for the greater glory of the Fatherland. So what’s wrong with that? Leaving his very pregnant wife behind, for starters. His pride and self-absorption become almost fatally evident on the expedition when he endangers the lives of himself and the other climbers. The expedition fails due to weather, and the return home fails due to war. The climbers descend into India, a British colony, and are taken as prisoners of war.

In the prison camp, we begin to see the complexity of Harrer’s character, which is just as tormented as it is tormenting. He repeatedly attempts futile escapes by himself, (even though each one brings recriminations down on his comrades left behind), but he finds that he can not escape, neither from the British, nor from himself and his remorse about abandoning his family. A particularly moving scene shows Harrer in the exercise yard during a downpour, repeatedly throwing himself onto the barbed wire as a self-inflicted punishment when he learns his wife has divorced him.

Eventually, Harrer does escape, but only when he learns to cooperate with some of the less impulsive prisoners, one of whom (Peter Aufschnitter, played by David Thewlis) was the captain of the failed expedition. Together, they wander across Tibetan mountains for years, seeking refuge (and generally getting none), fleeing bandits, and clashing as enemies do in the process of becoming the closest of friends. There is great comic relief in some scenes, and magnificent beauty in the starkness and strangeness of their exile. You will now have to see this on video, and you’ll kick yourself for not having seen it on the big screen. Harrer’s transformation begins here, in the cold and isolation of being a man without a country and without a hope, unrelentingly challenged by the beauty of the Roof of the World.

Eventually, both men do find a haven (and friends) in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. After the war ends, they stay in Tibet, Aufschnitter because he has married and found happiness with a Tibetan woman, and Harrer, because he has nothing to lead him anywhere else. That changes when the 14-year-old Dalai Lama sends for Harrer, and commissions him to build a movie theater adjacent to the Potala Palace. Jamyang Wang Chuck is astonishing in his performance. He is both a humble and capable ruler-in-the-making, winsome beyond belief. He is eager to learn everything possible about the world, and Harrer becomes his tutor. The scenes between Pitt and Wang Chuck are the crowning jewels of the film, filled with sensitivity, humor, and a love that is spiritual as well as friendly and filial. During this, the Chinese begin the war against Tibet, committing atrocities by the millions. Several excellent subplots describe the descent from peace to murderous destruction. Out of duty and love, the young Lama remains with his people. And for the same reasons, he sends his friend away.

Costuming and set design were astonishing. Although Annaud tried every possible avenue to shoot the film in the Himalayas, the Chinese government was successful in intimidating every Himalayan nation to deny him. Nevertheless, the Andean scenery which we do see, is so inspiring it is not easily forgotten, even if we only experience it in the theater. I desperately wanted to get a Seven Years in Tibet calendar, although it appears none were ever made. Pity.

Is there a flaw? The Dalai Lama enters only in the last third of the film, and I don’t think a single viewer would not want to tilt the film so that the bulk of the film was his story, so engaging is his portrayal. Yet to do so, would destroy the nature of this story, which is the transformation of Harrer. And even though the screenplay wisely concentrates much more on Harrer’s relationship with the Lama than the book did, you will leave with a sense of wanting more. Perhaps that is the lesson of Seven Years, that we do not love enough, that when we see how beautiful love truly is, we will regret that we didn’t love more.

Movie still © 1997, Touchstone Pictures

The Book of Privy Counseling

(Back to Page 1: The Cloud of Unknowing)

book cover

Although not even mentioned on the cover or spine, the greatest advantage of Johnston’s edition over others is its inclusion of another work by this nameless abbot, The Book of Privy Counsel. (Strangely, its title is altered here to The Book of Privy Counseling.) To me, this lesser-known, later work is if anything, even more valuable. Johnston’s decision to include it in with this translation of the Cloud was a stroke of genius and love. With only twenty-one micro-chapters versus the Cloud’s seventy-five, Privy Counseling is shorter and pithier. Radiating an even more mature and transcendent faith, it dispenses with apologetics for contemplation and descriptions of errors, and simply presents sound advice on doing “the contemplative work.” Also gone is the feeling of any halfway or introductory steps; for instance, the author here does not even mention the use of a prayer word as in The Cloud, nor does he forbid the use of words when praying. He simply cautions, “do not pray with words unless you are really moved to this,” and gives the soul its freedom to respond to the Spirit as it will. And while not specifically recommending it as a prayer word, he extols the singularity of the word is:

There is no name, no experience, and no insight so akin to the everlastingness of God than what you can possess, perceive, and actually experience in the blind loving awareness of this word, is. Describe him as you will: good, fair Lord, sweet, merciful, righteous, wise, all-knowing, strong one, almighty; as knowledge, wisdom, might, strength, love, or charity, and you will find them all hidden and contained in this little word, is. (p. 158)

contemplation as the awareness of isness

Perhaps it was this passage which inspired Meister Eckhart, the mystic genius to use the word “Isness” for God. Privy Counseling’s technique is quite different from the Cloud’s. No doubt from both his own growing intimacy with God, and his studies of Pseudo-Dionysius (St. Denis) whom he quotes, the author relies simply on a calm certainty of God’s panentheistic Presence as the “Ground of Being.” The method can be summarized as follows:

  • Become aware of your own being, “do not think what you are, but that you are.” (p.152) Do this not with thoughts, but just the “blind, general awareness of your being.” (p. 156) (This point is striking in its similarity to the Buddhist technique of vipassana, non-judging awareness on one’s being in the present moment.)
  • Knowing that God is “the ground of being,” that “he exists in all things as their being,” that “he is your being,” (p.150) offer your being to him “in words or desire” thus:

That which I am, I offer to you,
O Lord, for you are it entirely. (p.151)

The pure offering of your being to God’s being is considered the most effectual supplication, as it imitates Christ who gave “himself without reserve that all men might be united to his Father as effectively as he was himself.” (p.157) “Conceived in an undivided heart, [it] will satisfy your present need, further your growth, and bring all mankind closer to perfection.” (p. 157)

  • As your practice develops, let your will long “to experience only God…. as he is in himself.” (p. 172)

the work of rest

 Is it difficult? It truly seems easier for me than the methods of Centering Prayer and the Cloud, but Centering Prayer is certainly easier for a newcomer to contemplation to understand. This is an advanced practice, intended for someone with at least a bit of meditative experience under his belt, who doesn’t need an explanation to know the importance of embracing God within the self. It’s contemplation, and contemplation is far from easy. In the final chapter, the abbot addresses the situation with an honesty that will surely make every contemplative and meditator smile:

You may say, “All I feel is toil and pain, not rest. . . . On the one hand, my faculties hound me to give up this work and I will not. On the other, I long to lose the experience of myself and I cannot. . . . If this is rest, I think it is a rather odd kind of rest!”

Yes, I know it is painful and toilsome. And yet I call it rest. . . . Persevere in it with humility and great desire, for it is a work which begins here on earth, but will go on without end into eternity. (p. 188)

Indeed it will. Although I have given a lengthy summary here, please don’t depend on my sketch. Get all the insights of this wonderful teacher for yourself, and let it guide you into the wonder of touching God in this deepest of prayers. It will likely become one of your most valued books, one of the few which may truly change your life.

(Back to Page 1: The Cloud of Unknowing)

The Cloud of Unknowing

two historic jewels of christian mysticism

This translation by William Johnston contains not one, but two of the great books in the literature of contemplation, , the well-known classic The Cloud of Unknowing, and its lesser-known sequel, The Book of Privy Counsel(ing). These 14th century classics by an unknown English abbot have long been among the most respected and beloved texts on the subject, and had a profound influence upon St. John of the Cross’ writings on contemplative prayer. It has received renewed attention in the last few decades as interest in meditation and contemplation has skyrocketed.

Fr. Johnston’s superb translation makes these 700-year-old manuals feel almost contemporary. There are no anachronisms, no words that make you run to the dictionary, nothing that takes you from out of your living room to medieval England. You feel almost as if a living person is teaching you about this wonderful method of prayer. The Cloud is far more readable than other contemplative works I have read, such as Teresa of Ávila’s The Interior Castle, and Dark Night of the Soul by John of the Cross.

the cloud: meditation as concentrated love

Yet it is every bit as passionate. The title comes from the author’s metaphor of contemplative prayer as struggling to get beyond a “cloud of unknowing” which separates us from experiencing God’s presence. He dismisses the idea of using understanding as a means of reaching God, since God is unfathomable; instead, he suggests, we embrace God with our love. Having established that love is the means of going through “the cloud,” the author urges the reader to “beat upon the cloud of unknowing with the hammer of your love,” and to “pierce the cloud of unknowing with the arrow of your love.” The author’s passion for God is contagious, and his prose is inspirational. The Frimster could easily find a year’s worth of profound and moving quotes for the home page here!

As for technique, the author urges the reader to dispense with meditations (visualizations), petitions, and so forth during the time of contemplation, in order to be present to God alone, not God and meditations, etc. He suggests the use of a short word like “God” or “love” to bring one back to being alone with God whenever distracting thoughts intrude, which is central to the Centering Prayer method.

There is a dull middle zone of around twenty short sections dealing with errors to avoid, which will not speak effectively to most modern readers. Nonetheless, upon reading The Cloud again, I’ve understood and appreciated it far more than I did upon my first reading. Its method really comes down to one word: Love. Over and over, the author describes the quiet prayer as love: “this contemplative work of love,” “lift up your heart with a blind stirring of love,” and “each one, in a different way, can grasp him fully through love.”

There are few books which radiate such a powerful and infectious love of God. The author really is driving home one thing: Love is the beginning, end, and means of deep prayer. Nothing else is necessary, but a willingness to spend time alone with God in love.

Go to page 2: The Book of Privy Counseling.